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Still Dreaming Ted Kennedy's Dream | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Still Dreaming Ted Kennedy's Dream

“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” —Teddy Kennedy, 1980 Democratic National Convention

Tears streamed down the face of Lupita Maurer as she and other delegates to the Democratic National Convention cried and laughed and cheered for the Democratic icon who was not in Charlotte.

“He was always there for us, always there for our party,” said the Democratic National Committee member from Oregon. “It’s as if he couldn’t leave us. He had to come back to help us beat Mitt Romney.”

More than thirty years after Edward Kennedy gave voice to the passionate hope of grassroots Democrats that their’s could be a progressive party, more than four years after he recalled the “dream shall never die” message at the convention that nominated Barack Obama for president, more than three years after his death, the senator from Massachusetts again electrified a Democratic National Convention.

Not in person, of course. But via a remarkable video that provided an unexpected emotional highpoint on the first night of the party’s three-day convention.

On a night that featured more than its share of powerful speeches—from the keynote by San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to the impassioned addresses of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and equal-pay activist Lilly Ledbetter and first lady Michelle Obama’s strikingly liberal closing remarks—Kennedy delivered.

“Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!” the crowd that packed the convention hall chanted, as if it was 1968 or 1980 or 2008, when the ailing “Lion of the Senate” made a surprise appearance to celebrate the nomination of a Kennedy favorite who was born just a year before the senior senator’s election to fill his brother John’s US Senate seat.

Kennedy’s early embrace of Barack Obama’s candidacy gave the young contender a significant boost in his race with Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination. It also created a connection between the Democratic Party’s Kennedy ideal and the Obama presidency; a connection that would be solidified with the signing of the Affordable Care Act and the realization of at least a portion of Kennedy’s national healthcare dream.

The video tribute—which was shown after a solid speech by the latest Kennedy campaigner, Massachusetts US House candidate Joe Kennedy III—was exceptional in construction, and content. But the section the made the delegates go wild was a clip from the old debate.

Of course, the debate was with Mitt Romney.

For Democratic delegates who were waiting to see the Republican nominee for president taken down, Kennedy did the job. Masterfully.

The key exchange:

Romney: I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for twenty years, we should sustain and support it, and I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice.

Kennedy: On the question of the choice issue, I have supported Roe v. Wade, I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice… When, Mr. Romney, are you going to tell the people of Massachusetts which healthcare program you favor?

Romney: I have a plan, I have a position paper on healthcare, I’m happy to show it to you, Senator, any time you like.

Kennedy: Mr. Romney, it isn’t a question of showing me your paper, it’s a question of showing all of the people in here that are watching the program this paper. They ought to have an opportunity to know.

Romney: I think it’s a wonderful idea to take it through piece by piece …

Kennedy: That’s what you have to do as a legislator.

Romney: I understand—I understand.

Ouch!

When the skewering of Romney was done, the results of the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race flashed on the screen: Kennedy 58 percent, Romney 41.

Needless to say that is “the dream” of this year’s Democratic National Convention, where the enthusiasm for reelecting Barack Obama is matched by the determination to defeat Mitt Romney. “It’s like he came back to help us beat Mitt one more time,” said Karen Packer, a delegate from Portland, Oregon. “Take notes!”

“I love this—seeing that debate again,” said Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, a progressive Democrat and frequent ally of Kennedy in foreign-policy fights with the Bush administration. “You know why Ted Kennedy won that debate? You know why he beat Mitt Romney? Because Ted Kennedy was a real Democrat. He didn’t have to worry about getting the talking points right; he didn’t have to check the polls. He spoke from the heart, spoke for his principles. And people loved it. There’s a lesson there for Democrats this year.”

McGovern hit on something important there. The Kennedy moment at the 2012 convention was not just about recalling a fight with Mitt Romney. It was about renewing a progressive program that is too often tempered and softened by Democrats who do not get it.

It was about being against someone, it was and must be about being for something.

So it was that, when the delegates were done laughing at Romney, the senator took the delegates back to where they came from.

There on the screen was the last of the Kennedy brothers explaining once more the point of debates and campaigns and election victories: to advance not just a candidate, not just a party but a set of ideals: healthcare for all; social justice for people of color, for women, for lesbians and gays and immigrants; economic justice for workers and peace.

“When I stopped crying, I remembered how much we miss him,” said Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy.

“There is a void,” said Congressman McGovern. “Ted Kennedy was the conscience of the party. But he was also the master strategist. He knew that we could win by standing on principle. In fact, that’s the way we win best, and biggest.”

On the other side of the hall, a few minutes later, Ted Kennedy Jr. smiled. “My father comes back every four years to remind Democrats why they are Democrats. He did it one more time.”

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